Recently, tawdry fame whore/Scientologist Joy Villa announced that her strategy for gaining fame involved waiting for Scientology’s new media arm to begin broadcasting, as she expected it to become a bigger media platform than Fox News, thus boosting her career stratospherically.
Scientology spent millions to acquire the historic five-acre KCET Studios in Hollywood in April 2011, then spent five years and untold millions more to refurbish it into Scientology Media Productions (SMP). Scientology leader David Miscavige held a grand opening event in June 2016 (press release on Scientology web site here) and promised that broadcasting would begin by the “summer solstice 2017.” Seven months after that deadline, the radio silence continues.
We look at the strategy driving the creation of SMP and assess whether Scientology will ever begin broadcasting to the “wog” (their derogatory term for non-Scientologists) world and how they might justify their lack of action to their membership and those donors who gave to open the facility.
Why Might Scientology Claim to Need Another Studio?
Many critics have questioned the need for another production facility when Scientology already has Golden Era Productions at the top-secret “Int Base” located near Hemet, California. That facility has several soundstages, recording studios and post-production facilities where Scientology has shot training videos for decades. At one point, staff living on site even included a sizable orchestra to score these films.
Many of the production personnel have left Scientology, and it is hard to get outside production talent to travel to Hemet, which is outside the “studio zone,” so the unions charge a substantial premium for work at Golden Era, which is about 95 miles from the center of the studio zone. And many people, even at the higher rate, just aren’t interested in working for an odd church while camping in a motel in a declassé area for days or weeks at a time.
More importantly, many actor Scientologists and regular members who appeared in numerous internal videos have left the church, including actor Jason Beghe and soap opera star Michael Fairman. Scientology policy has always been to airbrush out inconveniently disappeared persons, or re-shoot films featuring those no longer in the cult. This is an amusing echo of the Soviet Union’s practice of revising history by airbrushing out disgraced Politburo members. As a number of defectors increases, Scientology has increasingly been forced to shoot videos with non-Scientologist talent so that they do not need to reshoot when a particular actor leaves.
The need for this new Hollywood studio may also be related to the fact that Scientology leader David Miscavige has not set foot on the Hemet property for over four years, according to published reports. It seems reasonable to believe that he doesn’t want to be tied to the site that was the focus of an extensive human trafficking investigation by the FBI and by widespread press coverage of “the Hole,” an office/prison complex for punishing out-of-favor executives.
However, we believe that the real driver for this facility was pressure from members to address the rapidly increasing avalanche of negative press about Scientology. The wave of bad press, often mocking in tone, started to build after the 2005 bizarre Tom Cruise incidents involving couch-jumping on Oprah’s show and the disastrous interview where Tom Cruise attacked Brooke Shields’ use of medication to overcome postpartum depression. That wave turned into a tsunami after the broad publication of the deranged Tom Cruise internal Scientology video and the subsequent Anonymous protests.
But the spark driving creation of SMP appears to have been the article in The New Yorker written by Lawrence Wright about the 2008 defection of Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis. That article appeared in February 2011, and the Los Angeles Times reported only a month later that Scientology was in talks to buy the KCET studios, a deal that closed soon after. Though no one knew it at the time, Wright’s article would lead to an extraordinary wave of bad press, including his own best-selling book, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” which would be followed by an equally lauded documentary of the same name. The New Yorker article remains one of the most frequently read articles on their site, seven years later.
Importantly, the press in general and The New Yorker in particular, now seem to be unafraid of Scientology’s longtime playbook of media intimidation. In subsequent interviews, Lawrence Wright detailed the church’s attempts to dissuade him from writing the article, to pressure his editors and to provide him with “facts” to prove them wrong. Obviously, their attempts to prevent publication failed and their attempts after publication to discredit the article backfired laughably. Scientology thus had to take a new tack in trying to be seen by members to “handle” the media.
The purchase of the studio so soon after this major critical article seems intended to be a clear signal to membership that Miscavige was serious about trying to respond to the omnipresent negative press about Scientology. Predictably, Miscavige’s response to any problem seems to be to build a building. Membership declining? No problem — build a series of Ideal Org’s. Narconon under pressure for negligent patient deaths? Announce plans to build a series of “Ideal Narconon’s.” Avalanche of bad press crippling recruiting and disheartening loyal members? Build a grand media studio!
The “when in doubt, build something” strategy is the result of Miscavige being hamstrung by “policy,” the body of directives from deceased founder L. Ron Hubbard. To cement the veneration of Hubbard as the Smartest. Guy. Ever, all Scientologists have to follow every diktat to the letter, including directing members to clean windows with wet newspapers instead of Windex and paper towels to save money.
What did Scientology Promise Its Members at the Grand Opening?
In the press release (note: this link is to a Scientology site) Scientology leader David Miscavige promised members that SMP represented unparalleled ability for the cult to get its story out to the rest of the world. He said:
SMP means only one thing: our uncorrupted communication line to the billions. Because as the saying goes, if you don’t write your own story, someone else will. So, yes, we’re now going to be writing a story like no other religion in history.
Scientology Media Productions (SMP) is poised to broadcast important, good, vital news to the world. News reaching TV screens; facts and opinion destined to radios; magazines hot off of digital presses; information beamed to computers, tablets and cellphones.
Yes, Scientology is in the news—that’s certainly proof that the religion is so interesting. But now Scientology Media Productions IS the media.
Hate to break it to you, Dave, but “interesting” when it comes to the public’s fascination with Scientology is not necessarily a good thing for Scientology.
Miscavige promised several original shows, naming “Meet a Scientologist” in particular. So clearly the focus will be on outreach. He’s also promised to harness every conceivable social media outlets to reach the young ‘uns.
According to the press release, the facility will also be used for offices for various existing front groups, a new headquarters for “Freedom Magazine,” the embarrassing attack dog publication, and it will be made available to community groups and other religious organizations.
All in all, it sounds like a pretty impressive operation. But like any new Scientology building, one has to look at the reality behind the hype to figure out what’s really likely to happen.
Will Scientology Actually Broadcast to The World At Large?
Seriously, no. That’s the last thing David Miscavige wants to do.
Oceans of Ridicule, the Worst Kind of Entheta: He knows that putting a slate of programming out there designed to expose the wonders of Scientology to a curious world would be an absolute disaster on an unimaginable scale. Every late-night comedian in the world would dissect that day’s programming and mine it for laughs. Millions of people would be exposed to an avalanche of ridicule of the organization. Millions more bloggers and YouTube artists would keep the jokes running in the unlikely event that the late-night hosts move on.
Importantly, there would likely be so much ridicule of the programming that members in the US would be unable to escape it entirely. Scientologists have to be deadly serious about themselves. Without constantly being reminded of the life-and-death importance of Scientology, saving the planet from nuclear annihilation and from the evil “psychs” who are committed to enslaving the hordes of unwashed non-Scientologists, cult members would start to question the endlessly demanded sacrifices of time and money, and the constant pressure and abuse.
Mockery is hard to fathom for cult members. A big part of the cult retention process is to convince members that they’re special and superior to the rest of the world. Attacks by outsiders are thus easily seen as jealousy or fear of the cult, the truth, etc. Attacks on fear or anger thus reinforce the group identity. But mockery and derision don’t fit the paradigm: why would outsiders laugh at us when we have the truth that they can’t see? If that happens often enough, there’s a good chance the bubble will pop. This may have been a factor in the Anonymous protests — Scientology tried to portray them as terrorists, but it’s hard to imagine terrorists singing folk songs, carrying cleverly ironic signs and feasting on elaborately decorated “caek.”
It’s also likely that featuring cult members on the “Meet a Scientologist” program might actually be problematic, as they could easily become targets of ridicule which could affect their careers. The current “doxing” trend such as the campaign to identify white supremacists who took place in the 2017 Charlottesville march, which ended up costing many of them jobs or careers, can be seen as justice by some but terrorism by others. I certainly don’t advocate doxing of Scientologists solely because of their belief because that treads uncomfortably close to religious freedom issues, though I think Scientologists who engage in appalling behavior are fair game.
The scale of ridicule of the cult if it were to begin broadcasting a lot of new content means that someone is likely to dox the people appearing on “Meet a Scientologist.” It is not clear to me whether Miscavige or other Scientology leadership, who are typically behind the times in understanding and then adopting new media types, will understand the potential risks.
Costs to Develop a Slate of Programming Are Huge: if Scientology were to begin broadcasting SMP content, they would need a significant amount of programming on Day 1 in order to capture and hold an audience. While many startup cable channels begin their initial schedule with frequent repeats of new content, any channel hoping to capture reader interest would need to have something like 30 hours of new content a week in order to keep something fresh and interesting in front of viewers. Otherwise, viewers would watch once and soon fall away, unlikely to return.
As a guideline, the typical cost of a garden variety cable reality show is about $300,000-$500,000 per episode. Scientology may be able to save some money on this by using low-paid Sea Org workers, though they would still likely need to use enough outside professional staff that their costs would not be dramatically lower than these amounts. It’s reasonable to believe that an initial programming schedule of 30 hours could easily cost Scientology on the order of $10 million to produce and they would have the burden of generating substantial amounts of new content to fill out a 24 hour a day schedule. Ultimately, content creation to the tune of 500 to 1000 hours per year could be an expense pushing $100 million annually. That is substantially in excess of the cost of the Ideal Org program. Importantly, the Ideal Org program has a residual value: the buildings can be sold for at least a fraction of what Scientology paid. Its programming has no residual value to anyone else.
If The Programming Costs Don’t Get You, the Retrans Fees Will: cable channels have to pay cable system operators “retransmission fees” (“retrans fees” for short). Scientology would be no exception; religious broadcasters pay cable networks for distribute in their content just like infomercial providers or anyone else. There are about 100 million households in the US that subscribe to cable, though this number is slowly declining as people moved to Internet streaming such as Netflix or Amazon Prime video. Even a very small retrans fee of $0.10 per household per month would result in cost to Scientology of $10 million a month to reach every household in the US. Of course, if Scientology did begin broadcasting, we believe they would target their markets a bit more, but our $0.10 estimated retrans fee is probably low.
When you add up the cost of programming and the cost of retrans fees to reach some portion of the US, Scientology could easily be looking at well over $100 million per year to fuel the SMP machine. For an organization that we think is making around $250 million, that’s a staggering cost, one that would drive them from profitability to significant operating losses. While Scientology top management may be fooling the flock about the success and growth of the organization, we don’t think they are fooling themselves on the wisdom of a potentially bankrupting move like doing a broadcasting campaign and doing it right. And of course, the toxic Scientology brand name means all that money would be wasted, as very few new converts would walk in the door.
Incidentally, it’s unlikely that Scientology could attract advertising from neutral parties to offset the immense costs of starting up a network. Most mainstream businesses would be unwilling to be associated with the highly toxic Scientology brand. And there’s little evidence that businesses owned by Scientologists have the financial firepower to buy enough advertising to defray these costs. Typical ad expense is 2% to 3% of consumer businesses, so if an SMP broadcast operation would cost $100 million a year, then Scientologist-owned businesses would have to be generating a minimum of $3 billion a year in revenue, if 100% of the eligible businesses participated. I don’t know any Scientologist owned businesses that are large enough to anchor such an ecosystem.
This may be the biggest reason of all: Scientology leader Miscavige is notorious for micro-managing minutiae of just about everything, including video production. If Scientology began producing significant amounts of content, Miscavige would be spending his days doing little else than overseeing every detail of every episode of every program to air. The production process would grind to a halt. Parenthetically, the cost advantage of unpaid Sea Org workers goes out the window as re-shooting, re-editing and redoing just about everything countless times eats up the seemingly compelling cost savings of their lower hourly wage.
Will SMP Focus on Content for Existing Members Instead?
If outreach to the world at large will result in a fatal firestorm of mockery and derision, then it might seem logical to expect upper management to focus instead on broadcasting content for existing members. Obviously, this would spare Scientology more corrosion of its already dismal brand image. It would certainly save on production costs, and it may be possible for Scientology to stream via a subscription video service rather than by classic cable channels, eliminating massive retrans fees. So at first glance, this might seem attractive.
However, I don’t believe they will actually do this. Scientology already has an existing library of material created by Golden Era Productions. Scientology doctrine is essentially restricted to the sacred word of Hubbard, who ended daily involvement in Scientology around 1981 and has been dead for three decades. Improvements are verboten.
Sure, there are special event videos to be produced, introductions to updated versions of “the tech,” and other minor projects that current management might develop. But the bulk of the video library is not changing sufficiently quickly to warrant the immense facilities that Scientology now owns at SMP.
More importantly, one of the key tenets of Scientology is “exchange.” Scientology believes that it is a religion of “the able,” and that its tech is so valuable that people should pay for it. Being “out exchange” such as when you give something away for free is despised as being soft and weak — love and compassion are emotions missing from Scientology’s “tone scale.”
It would be “out exchange” for Scientology to give away any programming on how to “do” Scientology, like free intro classes or anything of that sort. And it would certainly be against Scientology practice to put any programming out that will obviate the need for a visit to the local Org to subject the member to a high-pressure sales campaign. Interestingly, this is counter to current accepted practice in internet-related businesses, where you use a “freemium” model to give away an introductory-level service to millions of prospects and charge a monthly subscription for premium capabilities.
The only problem is that when you cross out the sorts of programming that either teaches people how to do anything useful or that keeps them from coming into their local org to donate, you don’t have much left. Basically, there’s only old event videos and local graduations. And I doubt that public from LA will spend time watching the paltry handful of people walking across the stage at the Cincinnati org’s occasional graduations.
So How Will Scientology Wriggle Out Of This Trap?
It seems likely that Scientology will do what it has always done: trumpet its achievement of the trivial goals and then move on to another focus to deal with whatever concern is out there among the membership at the moment.
I expect Scientology will probably talk at the end of 2018 about how they allowed the Nation of Islam to use the facility for production, how they moved some of their “social betterment” front groups into offices of the facility, and how they shot several minor training videos there. They will probably also deflect attention by threatening to report for “ethics handling” anyone who dares to question management’s flawless execution of their brilliant strategy.
It’s not entirely clear what the big concern stirring up excitement for the release of OT IX and OT X, though we don’t expect to see those releases anytime soon. It may be the announcement of some new building project, or it may be an attempt to milk the recent braying about “religious bigotry” and discrimination into a more organized campaign in the past. I may be wrong about the specific distraction, but I’m certain of the mechanism.